Scene from two "Apple Stores" in Mashhad, Iran.
Many Iranian businesses claim to be official representatives of Apple, even if they can’t even get the logo right. Photo depicts two of Iran’s countless “Apple Stores”, Mashhad, Iran.

TEHRAN, Iran – X was walking to her car when a motorcyclist snatched away her handbag, which contained her iPhone. The 25-year-old college student wanted a replacement but buying a genuine American product in Iran sometimes requires a dive into the seedy underbelly of this tumultuous metropolis of 16 million.

In Iran, it’s impossible to buy from Apple, which unlike rivals Samsung and LG, does not have an official presence here. What goes for an Apple Store are thousands of tiny shops selling mostly smuggled units. Some of these vendor even claim – with a straight face and all – to be Cupertino’s chosen representative in Iran.

Smugglers and self-appointed proxies of international behemoths are among the many players in Iran’s complicated economy who loathe Iran’s recent nuclear agreement with as much fervor as any Republican congressman or Israeli hawk.

Peace means just normal earnings. Conflict ensures higher markups and opportunity to tamper with the merchandise for an obscene killing, leaving the hapless Iranian consumer with plenty of drama, before man and God, all for this shiny 130-gram status symbol from America. An estimated six million of the 40 million Iranians who carry smartphones are iPhone owners.

For their iPhone, X and her husband Y headed deep into the center of Tehran, to the Iran Mobile Market, also known as “Allaedin” market, one of Tehran’s older but more disreputable, where floor after floor seemingly identical real and fake brands are peddled side-by-side in crowded seemingly endless corridors of tiny shops.

X and Y settled on a new iPhone 6 for the equivalent of $485 USD. The vendor then offered “free” installation of software. The couple refused the offer. But the seller installed the software anyway and charged to their bank card an extra $71.

When the couple complained, the seller “starts using religious terminology, claiming he’s entitled to his God-given right to earn a living,” X says.

“So I also start using religious terminology right back at him. We give him a long lecture on how this is outright theft.

“Eventually he admitted he had been dishonest but claimed he had no choice. He keeps saying, ‘This is our business model at Allaedin. If I had told you the true price of the phone, you would’ve walked away. So I have to do this to make a living.’”

The couple asked for a refund. The vendor agreed but then appealed to the couple’s compassion; he said a refund “would not make me happy” before God.

“When he said that, we felt bad. So we asked him, ‘Okay, between you, us and God, what is the true price for this phone?’”

The seller claimed $528. X and Y pay the amount and go home “happy that we did the right thing,” X says, “because it was win-win for both of us. He made a profit and we paid what we thought was a good price for a new phone.”

“For about 10 days we had this good feeling because we felt we helped someone get on the straightaway. He really listened to our lecture on honesty. We really thought from then on he would do business differently,” X says.

The good feeling did not last.

X noticed that the phone’s camera performed far worse than her older iPhone and asked knowledgeable friends for help. Eventually the couple was told they had fallen for a common trick.

“They buy iPhones that were identified as defective during assembly, that should’ve never left the factory. They bring them to Iran and package them as new,” Y explains.

(This writer, at this very moment, finally realized why his own Sony M2 purchased in Iran takes horribly grainy pictures. The label on that flimsy package it came in – ah, that’s why it looked as if it had been reproduced in a color copier!)

X and Y were now livid.

“We gave [the seller] this lecture on morality. Now we realize it was all a charade. The phone wasn’t even worth a fraction of what we paid,” X says.

Iranian stores do not take returns. Y knew he had to return with muscle. Braving Tehran’s horrendous traffic once again, he filed a complaint with the union that represents mobile phone merchants and received paperwork subpoenaing the vendor.

He then went to the store but didn’t reveal the subpoena, hoping to get a refund before risking infuriating the vendor.

What followed was a one hour and forty-minute argument “between just me and eight or nine of these guys standing around” defending the vendor.

“They even offered to take the phone back and replace it with a genuine iPhone. I said, ‘I don’t want anything genuine from you because you yourself aren’t genuine’.”

Y walked out with a complete refund, but angry and exhausted.

X says she feels more violated by the seller than the motorcyclist who snatched away her purse. She vows not to ever buy a phone in Iran and wait until she is visiting abroad.

But the seller could not steal the couple’s good will.

“During my military service, I was stationed at the prosecutor’s office,” Y says. “Everyday I saw every kind of crime imaginable, to the point that until six months after I got out, I still wasn’t myself.

“But I regained my belief in mankind. These guys up in that mall, they are nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to all the wonderful people I know. So I refuse to even think about what happened.

“We had the experience. We learned. Now we move on.”

Apple was in talks to enter Iran, Wall Street Journal reported two years ago.  In July, the Iranian government, which occasionally confiscates smuggled phones and shuts down the stores that sell them, told Apple to either enter Iran or risk a total ban on its products.